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August 11, 2005
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Campo Santo by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell Random House, 221 pp., $24.95 Unrecounted by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, with lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp New Directions, 109 pp., $22.95 When W.G. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001, he was eulogized in Great Britain and America as one of the great writers of our time. And yet, before his first book, The Emigrants, was translated into English in 1996, very few had ever heard of him outside Germany. The reception of that first book and the others that soon followed in quick order was simply astonishing. He was called one of the most original voices to have come out of Europe in recent years, a Teutonic Borges, strange, sublime, and haunting. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked in the TLS and then replied: “One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.” Since his death, however, there have been differing views. What at first appeared to be a seamless prose style turned out to be on closer examination a patchwork of literary borrowings. His books, it seemed, were as much the product of his vast erudition as they were of his own imagination and experience. This raises the question whether a writer who draws many of his ideas from other writers can still be called an original. If anyone can, Sebald may be the one. I suppose most everyone who read The Emigrants in Michael Hulse’s translation, when it came out, shared Sontag’s high opinion. It was a book unlike any other one had read. At times it sounded like a novel, at other times like a memoir or a work of non-fiction. There were even documents and photographs to complicate the question of how it should be understood. The narrative tells about the lives of four emigrants: an old Lithuanian Jewish doctor who accidentally emigrated to London in his youth, having embarked on a ship he thought was going to United States; a German schoolteacher who was forced to leave his job in 1935 and move to France because he had a Jewish grandfather and was thus only three-quarters Aryan, but who then returned home and served in the Wehrmacht; a great-uncle of Sebald’s who emigrated to America and ended in a mental hospital in Ithaca, New York; and finally a Jewish painter who lost his parents in the camps and whom the narrator encounters in Manchester. These are people like my own parents who could never forget that war, or stop being puzzled by how strange their lives turned out to be. What makes The Emigrants such a powerful book is the laconic way in which tragedies are recounted. That sounds right to me. Those who have lived through horrors tend to acquire a detachment about what happened to them. “It makes one’s head heavy and giddy,” one of them says, “as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” As for the author and the presumed narrator of the book, little was known about him at the time
“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. All in all. came out 1988. he turned to a different kind of writing. Thomas Browne’s skull is in it. which came next. the matchstick model of the Jerusalem Temple. and even the pores in the lid closed over its eye. and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. For long stretches of time he just sits in his room: Night had fallen and I sat in the darkness of my room on the top floor of the Vondel Park Hotel and listened to the stormy gusts buffeting the crowns of the trees. The Rings of Saturn. storm-filled air. when I heard the first drops rattling on the metal roof. After years of being a literary scholar. the subtlest nuances in the fowl’s plumage. I looked down into the hotel garden far below me. in the shelter of an overhanging willow. and so are Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Neither at home nor in school was there much talk about the war. All of these have a connection with the ports of East Anglia where Conrad started his career as an officer on British ships. Pallid sheet lightning streaked the horizon. Their lives were made even more isolated by the general poverty of the postwar years and the difficulty of travel. at the age of forty-four. a collection of the unbelievable. was published in 1995 in Germany. There are chance meetings with strangers who have interesting stories to tell. Joseph Conrad’s early years. I saw a solitary mallard. the one-of-a-kind. dines alone. His solitude draws him to other loners. a small village in the Bavarian Alps. they never went to the cities because the cities were piles of rubble. Like many of his generation in Germany. paraphrasing Sir Thomas Browne. visits local museums and places of interest such as the Persian-style house of a nineteenth-century millionaire and a Sailor’s Reading Room in the town of Southwold. to a working-class family. Following the critical success of The Emigrants. the reader has no idea of the author’s intentions and he is in no hurry to inform us. though not always in order of their composition. A book of prose poems. which flared from time to time as if lit up by Bengal fire. other works by Sebald were translated. motionless on the garish green surface of the water. The Rings of Saturn is a literary equivalent of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.and twentieth-century German and Austrian literature. we subsequently learned. and there. in 1990. Soon the rain was pouring down into the shadowy depths of the park. He roams the empty countryside with its equally deserted towns. the Battle of Waterloo. Schwindel. who evidently has read much about the region. not much happens. Sebald. World War II bombings of Germany. with such perfect clarity that I can still see every individual willow leaf. the book belongs to no recognizable literary genre. followed by a novel. At about one o’clock. Human history for him is mainly a tale about how violence is committed against the innocent and then soon forgotten. the myriad green scales of duckweed. however. Once. where he received a major literary prize. It tells of a walking tour Sebald undertook on the eastern coast of England. and describes what he saw. Gefühle (Vertigo). Nach der Natur (After Nature). As he explains. His father fought in the army and was a POW. and after a few attempts to return home settled in England permanently in 1970. From afar came the rumble of thunder. Sebald is an entertaining guide and yet his vision is bleak. was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu.except that he was a German living and teaching in England. This image emerged from the darkness. It’s the eccentricity of what he chooses to relate to us that makes the book so much fun to read. He taught European literature for thirty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. for a fraction of a second. the natural history of the herring. publishing several books on nineteenth. that Sebald’s name became known abroad. Everywhere he goes. the inexplicable. Sebald eventually went to study German and comparative literature in Freiburg in Switzerland and at the University of Manchester. in the broad ditch that runs between the garden and the park. stays in cheap hotels where he seems to be the only guest. It was not. Again.” he writes. the Taiping rebellion. . Often. the narrator. until the publication of Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (The Emigrants) in 1993 and its huge success in Germany. I leant out of the window into the warm. he grew up feeling that many things were being hidden from him. when lightning again flashed across the sky. reflects on its history. The water in the gutter gurgled like a mountain stream.
and yet only by remembering do we have a possibility of learning who we are. of every social order. who would go on to translate all his remaining works. the nameless narrator. too many coincidences and conspicuous symbols such as waiting rooms. Once again. draining itself. I think how little we can hold in mind. too many scenes that remind one of Sebald’s other books.) The plot of Austerlitz is similar to the story a character in The Emigrants tells about being brought to England in one of the groups of children sent from Germany in the summer of 1939.For the history of every individual. he sets out to find out about the death of his Jewish parents and his early childhood years in Prague. leads without fail down into the dark. he discovers that he is reading the description of Casanova’s escape from a Venetian prison on the same date (October 31) as Casanova’s escape. Much older. does not describe an ever-widening. was his one authentic novel. The effect would be a feeling of estrangement from our familiar surroundings. Everything in life conspires to make us forget. in the Antwerp train station. Vertigo. (This time the translator was Anthea Bell. more and more wonderful arc. Jacques Austerlitz. Again. but much of the historical material he draws on is so powerful in its own right that one tends to pass over his weaknesses. Austerlitz is not a book one easily forgets. It’s been called a novel. the novel is saying. Some of the subject matter is familiar from literature about the Holocaust. the story doesn’t seem entirely credible. There’s too much of that for my taste. but rather follows a course which. Particularly harrowing is the account of Austerlitz’s mother being taken off to a camp. that everything is connected. His towns and cities have been swept of nearly all life. but there are some problems too. ending in the narrator’s native Bavarian village. They are like stage sets for one of Samuel Beckett’s minimalist plays. It’s as if someone decided to use the technique of daguerreotype to convey the appearance of today’s cities and their inhabitants. Sebald’s subject is memory. Nevertheless. indeed of the whole world. or he is perplexed to meet identical twin boys on a bus who have an uncanny resemblance to the adolescent Kafka. that there’s no such thing as coincidence. the first prose book he wrote. But even with these serious reservations. how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life. haunted by blurred images of his past. which came out the year of his death. There are no light moments and no humor in his books to speak of. once the meridian is reached. Sebald may not be the most skillful novelist. acts as our guide. who encounters the hero. the book is full of fascinating anecdotes. It describes Sebald’s journey across Europe in the footsteps of Stendhal. He writes. in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard. was published next. and that is precisely what Sebald has sought to do in all his books. this undermines the believability of the narrative. Sebald’s pet idea seems to be that our lives are interlinked. and often harrowing novel with many stretches of fine writing. Austerlitz. and Kafka. For instance. . Casanova. Sebald is a writer for out-and-out pessimists. how the world is. The stakes are even higher when it comes to historical memory. and so are many of the references to the events of World War II. There are too many ideas floating around. Austerlitz is an ambitious. but it’s another magic realist travel book. Austerlitz is an architectural historian who was raised in Wales by a Methodist minister and his wife and told nothing about his German background. What is still intriguing in Vertigo is Sebald’s attempt to retrieve the tone and manner of nineteenthcentury lyrical prose for contemporary purposes. as it were. never described or passed on. that we are mere chess pieces in a game played by an invisible hand. since those who recall the past risk bringing down upon themselves the wrath of those who can only live from day to day by forgetting. All of his books report such experiences and the reader may find them either exhilarating or trying. intellectually complex.
sweeping baroque vision. they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real. regional novels. and personal confession—they are all these things together. Kafka was an influence on him and so were Thomas Bernhardt. the murder of millions of Jews. Borges.” Austerlitz says. Nabokov. As censors during the occupation. lives in deep distress. for keeping quiet about everything from bombing to the mountains of corpses in concentration camps. puritanical penance. In Campo Santo. It’s not making excuses for Germans.” As the critics have shown. self-denial.” are an early version of Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction that was published after his death. . Poles. one never knows how to classify his books. and Russians. In his actual travels. both the leading writers and the ordinary citizens. “How happily. adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading. he restricted himself mostly to England and Western Europe. Except for a short visit to the United States to do research on the life of his great-uncles. In surveying the works of several major fiction writers of the period in Campo Santo. in his account of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s novel Tynset. Bruce Chatwin. entangled in the inescapable associations of a terrifying past. where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous. he even occasionally lifts their words verbatim. Vladimir Nabokov. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered. most of them fairly short. such as letters. and the contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. examples of lush exoticism. but the destruction of German cities was never for him a major theme. “Between History and Natural History” and “Constructs of Mourning.Campo Santo. The two longish pieces. All of Sebald’s books are about journeys. Robert Walser. He also traveled in books he was reading. and André Breton. they surely would not have welcomed graphic descriptions of the carnage they created. collections of facts. to recall here that after the war neither the English nor the Americans were eager to dwell on the horrors of their bombing campaigns. Franz Kafka. There are appreciative. an experience that surpasses all imagination. and a piece on Sebald’s own musical education. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques. and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end. The characterization of the writer Bruce Chatwin reads like another self-portrait: Just as Chatwin himself ultimately remains an enigma. as a late flowering of those early traveler’s tales. He confesses that he has devoted endless hours of his life bent over atlases and brochures of every kind. Sebald is not being entirely fair to the postwar generation of writers. is to be found in the most matter-of-fact reports. His analysis of other writers in the essays in Campo Santo often reads like a description of one of his own books. or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. going back to Marco Polo. Sebald not only alludes to or quotes from other writers. he describes his early passion for geography as a schoolboy. he makes the interesting point that the most effective descriptions of total destruction of cities. The subject was the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange silence in German literature after the war about that experience. He is tough on his German compatriots. like many of Sebald’s own narrators. as well as Germans who risked their lives to oppose Hitler. speaking to us from the melancholic landscape which he roams by night. finely written essays on Peter Handke. the final posthumous collection of Sebald’s writings. Peter Weiss. however. which breaks the mold of the modernist concept. By far the most interesting are the four chapters from an abandoned book about a walking tour of the island of Corsica. For instance. “have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander. One might have expected him to try to remedy in his own fiction the failings he points to. he didn’t range far. dream books. the protagonist. consists of sixteen pieces.
” This is a powerful image that goes to the heart of what Sebald tried to do as a writer. is that the image and text should not explain or illustrate each other. Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter. the critic Andrea Köhler has an even better description of the poems. Among the pictures. the main character roams the city of London at night. who knew Sebald. The captionless. they are hinting at some kind of truth. but most of these little “poems” may look more interesting as journal entries than verse. he is especially struck by one painted by the seventeenth-century Italian painter Pietro Paolini. of course. “I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time. Francis Bacon. in one of the chapters about Corsica. describing them as “reductive epiphanies. the translator Michael Hamburger. frequently blurred black- . while the truth always lies elsewhere. an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life. away from it all. perhaps in memory of her father who has gone to war. with some mother holding a child in her arms. there’s a small poem. For example. we tend to see an official government film running in our heads. Rembrandt. Truman Capote. moments of illumination on the verges of perception. That’s all there is. Sebald says that he knew better than most of his fellow writers that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise reevocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. and Sebald himself are among the subjects. to escape and cure his insomnia and the memories of his tragic life. has many perceptive things to say about the short poems. below the eyes of Sebald’s dog Maurice we read the following: Please send me the brown overcoat from the Rhine valley in which at one time I used to ramble by night I can’t say that this has a strong effect. Borges.” Here is an amusing one: They say that Napoleon was color-blind & blood for him as green as grass The declared aim of the book. “These are neither aphorisms nor poems. There were. This was true of him too. Unrecounted is a book of thirty-three tiny poems by Sebald and thirty-three lithographs by the painter Jan Peter Tripp. Writing of Nabokov.” “jumbled snapshots of the most diverse occasions and impressions. The little girl holds out the doll of a soldier hardly three inches high. Under each pair of eyes. In Austerlitz. “but rather flashes of thought and remembrance. Whatever the eyes are doing. The apparent premise here is that the mouth is good for lying but not the eyes. Andrea Köhler writes. melancholy eyes in a dark dress against a deep black background. Proust. daydreaming or thinking.from whose Surrealist novel Nadja he got the idea to include photographs in his own books. Each lithograph portrays a pair of eyes with photographic accuracy. There are better examples. It shows a woman with large. as Dickens once did. which increasingly torment him. Beckett. In his introduction. When we think of history. flashes of remembered moments. he comes upon a museum which contains a surprisingly fine collection of paintings and Napoleonic mementos. who stands in front of her with her grave face turning sideways upon which tears have just dried. as I thought at the time.” In his postscript. Walking around Ajaccio. others.” he says. the birthplace of Napoleon. seeing in it. That has always been Sebald’s way.
Although I placed one foot in front of the other only slowly and very steadily. past the first houses and gardens and along the wall of the plot of land where the local people bury their dead. an occasion that had great consequences. And sometimes I felt as if the prospect towering so menacingly in front of me was not a part of the real world but the reproduction of a now insuperable inner faintness. even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective. but once there I could walk as if weightlessly. Sebald describes a visit to the studio of the painter Jan Peter Tripp in 1976. turned inside out and shot through with blue-black markings. Sebald was torn between mysticism and history. As much as he lived in his head and in books. Sebald always wanted to step outside time. is most memorable for me when it is like a snapshot or a home movie. His writing. What gives his books their drama is their inner turmoil and the unexplained origins of his grief. in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life. showing a mentally ill judge with a spider in his skull. “What can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?” Sebald asks himself and then goes on to say: Much of what I have written later derives from this engraving. but decides otherwise: I turned back after all and made for the land which. as hard as he tried to attain serenity. like a man who has mastered the art of levitation. soaring from the bright side of the rocks into the shadows and darting out into the light again. from this distance. feeling he could simply let himself drift away into the evening and later on into the night. Meanwhile his books. It took me a good hour and a half to climb to Piana again. resembled a foreign continent. While admiring the painter’s work. The view before my eyes seemed to have tipped out of its frame. to locate some imperishable stillness at the heart of things. probably never-ending debate over whether the seeming arbitrariness and mysteriousness of some of his work can be justified. and not as if I were laboring against the current that had been carrying me on before. what I find most authentic in Sebald is the times when he’s simply reporting what he experienced. He was like someone who suffers remorse for crimes he never committed. However. could do something creative like that one day. past almost vertical rocks down to the sea several hundred meters below. too. are very much worth reading. frozen in mid-movement with fear. with the upper rim of the picture skewed several degrees in my direction and the lower rim skewed away from me to the same extent. he describes taking his first walk in the town of Piana on a road that soon begins to fall steeply in terrifying curves. Even harder than reaching the bank was the climb later up the winding road and the barely trodden paths which here and there link one curve in the road to the next in a direct line. I expect there will be a protracted.and-white photographs in his books have only a peripheral connection to the narrative and usually none at all. no. if one can say so of a stretch of water. I was inclined to think that I was swimming steadily uphill. it occurred to Sebald that he. the martins circling the flame-colored cliffs in huge numbers. swimming became more and more difficult with every stroke. He goes far out. In another chapter of his unfinished book on Corsica included in Campo Santo. swaying and flickering of its own accord. he could not make that spider stop crawling inside his head. Tripp gave Sebald one of his engravings. . starting with The Emigrants. He watches the few tourists on the beach. He was a Romantic who kept being haunted by the reality of the world. and the blood pulsed in my neck as it did in the throats of the lizards sitting everywhere in my path. The spider was his conscience. too. sharp bends and zigzags. was leaning toward me. and finally decides to take a swim in the sea. the afternoon heat building up between the rock walls very soon brought sweat running down my forehead. In the essay called “An Attempt at Restitution” in Campo Santo. This is an odd way of thinking about one’s writing and seems true in some way.
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